The Hindu Business Line - 13 Aug 04

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 31 Aug 09)

Fast Breeder Reactor Projects Put on Fast Track

By M. Ramesh
Friday, August 13, 2004

Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission

CHENNAI, Aug. 12 - Indians are now the world masters of the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology - the country has 12 PHWR units running. With the technology learnt from the Fast Breeder Test Reactor project - an R&D project - the nuclear establishment is putting up a 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam. The "first pour of concrete", which is a milestone in a nuclear project's implementation, is expected to happen shortly.

Mastering PHWR and FBR are two key issues under India's nuclear rubric. The first denotes the learning of producing plutonium indigenously and the second indicates learning of how to use it. The prototype FBR at Kalpakkam will then show the world that India can produce, use its own nuclear fuel. Now the country's ambition is to double the installed nuclear power capacity in four years and reach 11,000 MW by the end of the 11th Plan.

The man at the helm of affairs today is Dr Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. He spoke to Business Line about how the future looks. Excerpts from the interview:

How are talks with Russian on the next V VER projects progressing?

See, It is like this. We have all along taken the attitude that India's energy requirements are large. We must enhance the contribution of nuclear power. Considering that nuclear power will help offset emissions, our setting up nuclear power projects will also be good for the whole world. In that context, if we are able to add to nuclear power capacity with external inputs - money, equipment, technology, fuel - to that extent we are able to move towards the objective faster. As part of our policy, we have no problems in putting up any project with external inputs under IAEA safeguards.

I think there is also a lot of goodwill for India. Countries such as Russia and France are willing to collaborate, but they are all members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. They have their commitments to the group. They want the condition of full-scope safeguards to be met, (which means all the nuclear projects of India should be put under IAEA safeguards, not just those built with external assistance).

So, if we get external assistance, we are happy. If it does not come... .no problem. We still have our programme.

But doesn't the Kudankulam project pave the way for other projects with Russian collaboration?

The two projects of Kudankulam came on the basis of an agreement which predated this scenario. So, it was only a fulfilment of an old agreement.

What are the Russians saying now about the next projects?

They understand our position, but they don't want to be seen as going back on their international obligations.

Are we then deadlocked on this issue?

Well, at this moment, yes. But as I said, we are happy if things work out, but we are not unhappy if they don't. We have a long-term programme. Now that we have mastered the fast breeder technology, the potential of domestic uranium which was at 10,000 MW (fifty years ago) has gone up to 500,000 MW. What is working in our mind is, why not we put this on fast track. We put emphasis on fast reactors. We may not do much in first 10-20 years, but if you see the long-term horizon, a few 100,000 MW is no big deal. So our position is: we will emphasise on growth through FBRs, but if something comes from outside, it is welcome.

What does "putting on fast track" mean?

We are doing a number of things. For example, the IGCAR (Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research) developed Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor project. Normally, the tendency would have been to say that since IGCAR developed, let it build it, which it can do. But we realised that Nuclear Power Corporation of India is strong in project management. So why not synergise IGCAR's technology with NPCIL's project management strength?

This configuration is showing results. Already BHAVINI (the company set up to build the 500 MW PFBR unit) is talking about doing it on a much smaller time frame. I won't be surprised if the project time is cut by one-and-a-half years.

Secondly, we are sharpening our focus on metallic fuel (Plutonium in its pure form is used as fuel, rather than as plutonium oxide or plutonium carbide). Initially, the growth of fast breeder reactors will be supported by plutonium from PHWRs. This will go on. But ultimately, we look for doubling time in FBRs. Therefore, we give much higher emphasis on metallic fuels, which have much higher breeding. We'll work on oxide fuel and changeover to metallic fuel at a point in time.

(Fast breeder reactors produce, or breed, more plutonium than they consume. A mixture of uranium and plutonium is used as fuel, but over time the reactor converts part of the uranium into plutonium. Doubling time is the time it takes to produce twice as much plutonium as it started with. A reactor which uses plutonium in its pure (metallic) form as a higher breeding ratio - it produces more plutonium faster.)

When do you think you will switch to metallic fuel?

The PFBR will certainly be oxide fuel. At the moment, the plan is that we will use oxide fuels in the next three or four fast breeder reactors and after that change over to metallic fuel systems. However, the design of these reactors can accommodate metallic fuels at any point in time. We can change over to metallic fuels at any time, but we will decide on that after an assessment, maybe 2-3 years after operating with oxide fuels.

Please give an idea about the breeding ratio when metallic fuels are used?

The doubling time with oxide fuel is in the range of 20-30 years. In the case of metallic fuels, it is around 10 years.

But do you have experience in handling metallic fuels?

Well, we certainly don't have large-scale experience, otherwise we'd have done in it PFBR itself. But we will learn, as we did in the case of using the carbide fuel (in the fast breeder test reactor). It was a decision forced on us because we did not have the enriched fuels (that a breeder reactor with oxide fuel would need). Today, the carbide fuel has crossed a burn-up of 130,000 MW and looks like it will go to 150,000 MW.

Anyway, we are not deciding on metallic fuels today.

Do you see India putting up nuclear plants abroad?

If somebody says "do it" we can always do it. But there is this barrier of politics. It operates both ways. It affects supply of technology to India as well as from India.

In this context, do you see the recent co-operation with Americans bringing results? (Last year, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited India. The visit of US officials opened up dialogue between the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of India and Nuclear Regulatory Commission of US for cooperation in the field of nuclear safety.)

It is good, but I do not think it (Indo-US nuclear cooperation) will go to such levels. But we must move in that direction.

What is the update on the site selection committee's report?

The report is with us. That still has a larger process to go through. We finally have to go to the government. Existing sites also have a lot of scope to accommodate additional capacity, but we've also looked at new sites.

How many projects were taken up by the committee?

It is like this. I've to reach 11,000 MW by end of the 11th Plan. Now we are at, taking into account both operating units and ongoing projects, 7,300 MW which means we have to go for something like additional 2,700 MW capacity, to be completed by the end of the 11th plan. Of them, some have to be initiated in the 10th Plan, some could be in the 11th. So we are roughly talking about four reactors, maybe 700 MW each and one AHWR (advanced heavy water reactor, a 300 MW unit, which uses thorium as fuel, put up by Bhaba Atomic Research Centre).

When will a decision be taken on the sites?

Between six months and one year.

What is happening on the AHWR project?

We're going through peer reviews. It is conceptually a different kind of reactor. We want to make sure we don't miss anything.

The way to go about that is peer review. But we are not going to rush with the project. After all, it is a demonstration project - the idea is not to make money.